How piles of grass almost brought the Irish government to its knees

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After surviving Brexit and the pandemic, it was the most mundane question of divots that nearly brought the Irish government to its knees last week.

The Dáil saw the mouse of the countryside pitted against the mouse of the city, figuratively of course, in what the opposition called a culture war on the rural way of life, but which the government claimed was a public health issue.

Environment Minister and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan was portrayed as the villain of the piece in this pantomime, which was frankly a mix of climbing on moving trains on one side and inane communications from the other.

First a bit of context. Turf in Ireland refers to peat, the decaying organic matter that has accumulated over thousands of years in the country’s bogs. For centuries, our ancestors dug up the clods, dried them and burned them for fuel.

Many homeowners in rural areas still have a bog area and will use this grass to supplement other forms of solid fuel heating. For them, it’s an important part of Irish culture and national identity and it’s what passes for self-sufficiency in fuel.

Excess turf is then sold to neighbors or local stores, providing a modest revenue stream. There are also commercial operations that harvest the turf and sell it commercially.

So when Ryan announced in early April that he was going to introduce an outright ban on the sale of turf, alarm bells rang in rural Ireland.

His rationale for the ban was that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a November 2021 report said there are “approximately 1,300 premature deaths in Ireland per year due to levels of fine particulates in our air.Levels of this pollutant are of growing concern and are particularly high during the winter months, when the use of solid fuels such as coal, grass and wood has a negative impact on the quality air.

Sod has therefore been identified as one of the culprits but by no means the only one causing premature deaths. Nevertheless, the government continued to use the 1,300 figure in association with turf, which was dishonest at best.

An immediate issue for the government was the timing of Ryan’s announcement. Since May 1 this year, the government, as part of the strategy to establish a climate-neutral economy by 2050, has increased the rate of carbon taxes on household heating fuels.

The increase comes as households across the country struggle to make ends meet, with inflation hitting a 20-year high, driving the cost of basic necessities such as fuel, food and lodging. A full tank of oil that cost $420 in January before the increase cost about $730.

Add to this the uncertainty created by the war in Ukraine and it is no wonder that, in the run-up to the imposition of these charges, there have been many calls for tax hikes to be delayed as well as for the cancellation of the ban on the sale of turf.

For those who owned bogs and had the right to cut sod, it felt like a double whammy: increased costs to heat your home and a ban on sod sales. For those who relied on cheap grass for heating, they were also deeply unhappy with the proposal.

Another major problem for the government was its own incompetence in handling the message in relation to the ban. Ryan initially said the ban was moving forward; then Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar said the ban was suspended, only for Ryan to contradict him and say that was not the case and was not suspended.

The government didn’t know if this was coming or going, a desperate position to be in if you want to bring the public with you and implement policy changes.

Then, to add to the confusion, the grannies were thrown into the mix. It has been suggested that if a grandmother bought or sold sod, she would be committing a criminal offence. The image of elderly ladies in handcuffs prompted Ryan to say the government wouldn’t put “anyone’s grandma in jail for burning grass”.

Such statements added more fuel (proverbial in this case) to the fire. Opposition parties believed they had the government on the run, and Sinn Fein cast a vote calling for a reversal of government policies on the land and the carbon tax.

While the government TDs had announced the fall of the government before the vote, with reports from the West of Ireland TDs Fine Gael parliamentary meeting ‘roaring’ against Ryan who had met them, they all backed the position of the government.

It is hardly surprising, for the fact is that turf warfare is not the cultural Armageddon that its adversaries wish to portray. There will be no restrictions on people who own their own bogs and use sod in their home fire or share it with neighbours. There is no ban on giving peat by those who have the right to harvest peat, and granny will not be thrown in jail. Limited sales will also be permitted.

This problem will be solved but, in its wake, it has left tarnished reputations.

Fine Gael faltered greatly in the face of rural discontent. Its leader, Varadkar, is said to have said that taking turf out of rural Ireland is like taking wine out of the French or pasta out of the Italians. However, such a withdrawal was never planned.

Sinn Fein, which is desperate to restore its reputation on green sustainability, has abandoned them for short-term popularity. It will come back to bite them. And a Labor senator sillyly said you can’t burn grass if you’re underwater, which totally missed the point of the proposed ban and added to the confusion.

For the villain of the play, Ryan, he comes away with enhanced notoriety. Despite little support from his government colleagues, he stood his ground and faced his critics. Yes, there will be a compromise, but the fundamental principle of improving air quality has been accepted.

And as for the grass cutting itself. Having tried it once on a West Clare estate in the scorching sun, I can attest to the fact that it is hard, tedious and backbreaking work, and not the stuff of dreams and feelings.

But then, in case you haven’t guessed, I’m a city mouse.

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